Happy 2018

January 5th, 2018

Hey, it’s the new year.

This has not been the most productive week of work here. School was delayed two hours on Wednesday and closed on Thursday and Friday. The children are reasonably good about letting me work, but that’s a lot to ask. In the meanwhile, we had a pipe burst. We had a drawer break. Comcast demands its cable box must update, but then can’t connect to its own network. A week from heck.

On the plus side, Serendeputy v4 alpha is up and reasonably working. You can play around with it if you want. It doesn’t do much yet, but you can play with the catalog. I hope to be in full beta by the end of the month. We’ll see.

Ok, that’s all for now. I’ll write more when I have time (and something useful to say).

Hey, it’s October now.

October 13th, 2017

Things still are as they are. The world still spins, the soccer games still end with Italian Ice for everyone. The traffic on the road outside my window keeps getting worse as Waze routes people downtown through my neighborhood. This instance of WordPress is still slow as [molasses], but Cloudflare solves most problems and I still have higher priorities for my time than rewriting or moving this site.

I’m heads-down working on the next version of Serendeputy. The pixel mines are fertile, but excavating takes time. I’m lucky, though: it’s a lot easier to write a newsfeed engine when you’re not concerned with surveillance, stalking or spam, only usefulness.

The path is long, but I try to enjoy things keystroke by keystroke and day by day. Plus, I’m growing ever more expert at deciphering EXPLAIN ANALYZE and dancing with the OOM Killer.

I’ll write some more, at some point in the indeterminate future when I have something more useful to say. Or announce. Or demo. I still kick around Twitter a bit, though, if you want to say “Hi.”

Weekend Reading, Memorial Day weekend edition

May 26th, 2017

Hey, it’s a long weekend. You have a little more time for some longer reads.

One of the advantages of writing my own news engine (launching Real. Soon. Now.) is that I get to see a more obscure (but interesting) stuff. Here’s what’s been accumulating over the past couple weeks.

Ming Tsai’s next big thing. Our household is sad Blue Ginger is closing. It was our once-a-year-or-so-nice-restaurant-for-date-night destination. Guess we have to find somewhere new.

Ever wonder why there’s a supermarket over the Mass Pike?

A Sports Illustrated profile of André the Giant from 1981.

Not that my ’72 Nova wasn’t an acceleration beast, but America’s cars are getting faster and more efficient. At the soccer game last week, a ’60s-era Mustang came through. The children will never know that that’s what the world used to smell like. And, in case you were wondering, your robot car should ignore you.

What shall we do about the endless plague of delivery trucks on residential streets. I confess to being part of the problem here, but I look at it as reducing traffic to Natick or Burlington on the weekend. And, I bet you always wanted to know the differences among streets, roads, lanes and boulevards.

Kurt Vonnegut interviewed by the Paris Review. I still love going back to read Cats Cradle and Galapagos. Plus, he was my graduation speaker at Syracuse in ’94.

David Byrne (from Talking Heads) talks about how we’re eliminating the human in our interactions with the world. "It’s a small step then from a worker that doesn’t care to a robot. To consumers, it doesn’t seem like a big loss."

Fellow Holliston native Rachael Combe details the mysterious answer to her unrelenting insomnia.

Inside the fidget spinner gold rush. This is all the rage in the elementary schools. Some of the teachers have already banned them. It’s fun to see how these types of fads spread quickly across the consciousness of the parent community.

"I ordered 325 of them and got them last Wednesday. By Sunday I had sold out. I got 500 more and I’m planning on ordering another 2,000 of them," Nick Travali, founder of Smartphone Fix in Santa Maria, California, told me. "We get them for $1.50-$2 per piece, sell them for $8.

Somebody’s going to get stuck with a mess of these when the music stops.

One reason Blue Apron just may outlast the rest: Working mom guilt.

There are the class of companies who are started by and/or for single dudes who still wish their moms took care of them, and the class of companies that are aimed at families, in particular, working parents who still want to feel like they are nurturing their kids with a home cooked meal…

“From a venture perspective, this insight– WOMEN NOW WORK!- can drive investments across a wide range of consumer categories that need to be disrupted and offer a more convenient offering to working families,” …

“The ‘working mom’ sets an impossible bar for herself of being super mom from the 1950s and being a professional,” he says. “[This] while dealing with a bunch of other stuff, such as not being wasteful and recycling clothing, eating organic, working out.” And this is before we get into mommy wars: Those threads online where stay-at-home moms and working moms divide into tribes, and the debates end with the most brutal thing you can say to any mother: You are a bad mother.

Eugene Wei (with whom I overlapped briefly) writes more about Jeff Bezos’s communications strategies for getting the entire company aligned. As anyone who has worked with me in the last 17 years, knows, I totally stole GOHIO (Get our House in Order) from my time at Amazon.

Finally, in case you were wondering. Mount Everest is really crowded this year. It’s also really expensive.

Maybe next year.

Weekend Reading, 4/21/17 edition

April 21st, 2017


For several years, I maintained a sort-of link blog here, in the form of Linky Goodness.

I think I’ve successfully proven that I’m not going to keep a linky goodness going in a meaningful way. I have several years of observations to back that up. So, I’m going to see if I can dedicate an hour a week to put together what I think are the best reads for the weekend. This is week one. We’ll see if I can make it to week two. I give it a 60% shot.

This is a brilliant dissection of the United CEO’s weasel-y memos last week. Compare and contrast with Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos’s annual shareholder letter.

So, how well do you know how the brain works (and what Elon Musk has been up to)? Find out with Tim Urban’s latest, Neuralink and the brain’s magical future.

Maybe you’ll use artificial intelligence for marketing and analytics. Most likely you’ll underestimate the complexity unless you’re one of those mythical 10x engineers. To succeed, you may have to withdraw from Slack .

It’s hard enough to predict the initial impact of these advanced technologies, but what are the likely second-order effects of self-driving cars?

And finally, this is a surprisingly sweet video.

How does one jump from v1 of a product to v4?

April 10th, 2017

By following a very weird road.

I wrote the first version of Serendeputy (my news engine and personal white whale) in 2008 after I left Boston.com — launching the beta version in the middle of 2009. I kept improving it, but noticed soon that selling into media companies during the Great Recession did not have an especially-high close rate.

So, I joined up with Susan Hunt Stevens and co-founded Practically Green, now Wespire. I lived the startup life for a couple of years until family obligations drove me to bow out gracefully.

So I got back to product-strategy consulting and working on Serendeputy, building out what I was calling v2, a clean rebuild that was going to adjust to how the world was working in 2011.

Then, one of my consulting clients brought me on full-time and I put it aside.

A while later, our private-equity overlords shut us down.

So, I got back to product-strategy consulting and working on Serendeputy, building out what I was calling v3, a clean rebuild that was going to adjust to how the world was working in 2014.

Then, one of my consulting clients brought me on full-time and I put it aside.

A while later, my division got restructured, and my position was eliminated.

So, I got back to product-strategy consulting and working on Serendeputy, building out what I am calling v4, a clean rebuild that is adjusting to how the world works in 2017.

And, that’s where I am right now. It’s a good place to be, and I’m happy with the progress I’m making. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I should be able to have this version of the application out in the world by September.

I’ve been making good progress, but I was still a little haunted by v1. Out in the wild. Showing its age. Built before responsive design was a thing. Built before Twitter was a thing. Dated. Like gold-lamé dated.

Running Rails 2.3.2.

A tiny bit embarrassing, if I have to be totally honest.

So, after one more weekend spent debugging weird errors, I decided to mothball v1 and put up a coming-soon page for v4. That’s what’s up live at Serendeputy right now.

I would have loved to do a graceful transition from one version to the next, but the world was not leaning that way.

So, Onward!

Stay tuned. If you’re already one of the users of Serendeputy v1, I’ll send you note when the new version is ready to play with. For everyone else: if you’re interested in finding out when the new version goes live, drop me a note — jason at serendeputy — and I’ll make sure to let you know.

Now, back into work.

Who will care for the caregivers?

January 20th, 2017

Here’s an article from the New York Times talking about elder caregivers. You should read it, including the comments.

This is such a wicked problem. I’m not sure there’s a clear way out.

My favorite Christmas album

December 2nd, 2016

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Butler household goes all Christmas music, all the time.

The all-time best Christmas record in our collection is A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. It’s a great collection from the early sixties, full of joyful singing and crystal-clear production.

Here it in on Spotify.

You should give it a try. It’ll make the next hour very festive.

NYT election coverage over the years

November 8th, 2016

This is fun. Here are all the New York Times election-result Page Ones since 1852.

Hooray for newspapers

November 8th, 2016

A quick note of appreciation on this Election Day. This year, I have paid for digital subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I may not always agree with their politics, but we need this type of journalism to exist. That takes money. Please consider subscribing.

‘Bad Moms’ was surprisingly good

November 6th, 2016

We watched Bad Moms after putting the children to bed last night. I had pretty low expectations, but it was surprisingly good.

We’re in the middle of the competitive whirlwind the movie portrays. It’s often unpleasant. This movie lets us be the hero.

Bad Moms was like Revenge of the Nerds for Gen-X parents. With more cursing.

How the Kroc donation to NPR happened

November 5th, 2016

Fascinating interview with Lisa Napoli on the latest episode of The Pub, with Adam Ragusea.

They served Big Macs in the NPR lunchroom that day, I’ll tell you.

Heinlein, Starship Troopers and pragmatism

November 5th, 2016

Jim Wright is a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer who writes a personal site over at Stonekettle Station. You should go cruise through his back catalog, but today’s post is really interesting: discussing political pragmatism through the lens of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

S. — my soon-to-be–11-year-old — is getting to the point where she’s reading more science fiction. She loved The Martian and is about to start on Rendezvous with Rama (thanks, Russ!). She read Ender’s Game and really enjoyed it. I’m going to re-read my Heinlein and see if she’s ready for it.

I just published my first story on Medium

November 5th, 2016

I’ve been writing here since 2001. I just published for the first time on Medium, sending over the Retail/Amazon piece.

I’m interested to see how much further my words travel through Medium vs. through my own channels.

Is it possible to make money with a retail store in the age of Amazon?

November 5th, 2016

This is a fascinating thought experiment: given that Amazon exists, how can you design a profitable local retail business?

The Concord Toy Shop is for sale.

This store has a lot of advantages. It’s in a great location, with a decent amount of foot traffic, an easy walk from downtown and right across from the train station. It is in a relatively wealthy suburb, with many families with children.

So, what are the JTBD for the parents coming in?

Are they trying to give their children a small treat? Are they looking for presents for their nieces and nephews? Are they trying to feel better about themselves by buying locally? Are they trying to give their teenagers a decent job for afterschool?

Are they trying to be better parents? There’s a lot of value to be created in helping parents feel like better parents.

Even more interesting: how could the combination of intelligent (yet simple) software and a local, beloved outlet uniquely fulfill those JTBD?

I’m intrigued.

I’m really enjoying the Lefsetz Letter

November 4th, 2016

I subscribed to the Lefsetz Letter a couple of months ago, and I’m really enjoying reading it each day.

Bob Lefsetz talks about the record industry (and the media industry more broadly) in ways that make me think deeply about my own work.

Plus, he’s pointing me towards new (to me) music. In the last week, I’ve discovered Gunpowder & Lead by Miranda Lambert and Before She Does by Eric Church. I don’t listen to a lot of modern country (I’m mostly Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), but I love expanding my base.

Best of all, he pointed me to this fun, impromptu cover of You Shook Me All Night Long.

Awkward 1:1s

November 4th, 2016

Whenever I’ve had a team, I’ve made sure I schedule at least bi-weekly (preferably weekly) 1:1s with each person I manage.

These would always follow the same general agenda:

  • Current Project status. This would be a basic top-level green/yellow/red style update. Most of the time I know this already, but it’s good to triple-check things.

  • Things I need to communicate. These are all the things I’ve learned that affect them. Most of the time I’ll cover these items in the weekly team meeting, but I’d try to reinforce them here.

  • What’s on their mind. Open time for them to bring up big issues on their mind.

  • Big working topic for the session. I liked to have at least one thing we could talk about in-depth, usually around the whiteboard. This usually ended up displacing at least one other meeting that week.

  • Rumors and Gossip. Rumors and gossip time is critical. It’s important to have a dedicated time to talk about everything that’s going on: what they’re hearing and what they’re thinking. It’s less critical at a startup, much more critical at a place like NPR, a distributed, complicated and highly-social organization.

I worry that I wasn’t making the 1:1s awkward enough, though. Mark Rabkin, an Engineering and Product VP at Facebook explains:

Don’t talk about any topic that you could discuss in the open, among your team desks or in the cafe. If it’s safe enough to be overheard — it’s not the right content for a 1:1. Email it, send it in Slack, discuss among the desks, say it at a meeting, anything but a 1:1.

Commit to saying one rather awkward thing every 1:1, and get the other person to commit too. Agreeing in advance and getting permission makes it feel way more safe. Committing creates peer pressure to be real. It works.

You should read that whole article. Lots of good ideas.

I’ll never have to solve this again

November 4th, 2016

I’m getting to an age where I’m solving problems for the final time. Today, I’m getting the pipe from my basement to the septic tank re-lined, fixing 45 years of damage from grease and roots.

I asked how long it should last. They told me fifty years. Good enough for me!

I can run out the clock on this particular problem.

Seems like I’m getting more and more of those types of problems. Alas.

Finally found a meat CSA

September 28th, 2016

I was able to pick up many good habits during my time at Practically Green (now WeSpire). One of the ones that has stuck is being a member of a vegetable CSA, First Root Farm, here in Concord.

CSA stands for Community-Supported Agriculture, and it’s a great way to know that your vegetables are grown locally, minimize transportation cost, pollution and spoilage, and help keep dollars in your community.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been looking for a meat CSA, and I’ve finally found one: Walden Local Meat.

We got our first drop-off a week ago, and we made the lamb chops on Saturday and the roast chicken on Sunday. We have a couple of more meals to make, but it’s all thumbs-up so far.

I’m looking forward to some great roasts in the winter.

PostScript: It looks like First Root Farm is shutting down. That makes me very sad, though I understand the reasons behind the decision.

If anyone knows of a vegetable CSA around Concord, please let me know…

Quality is job 3.1

July 22nd, 2016

Ok, that’s an ‘90s-era Microsoft joke.

But, sometimes it’s true. During my unscheduled free time, I’ve been building the third version of my news engine.

V1 is Serendeputy which is still happily up and running. I wrote that in 2008-2009. Social was far less important then, and responsive design was not yet a thing; as a result, the app is showing its age.

I was working on v2 when NPR recruited me in 2014. I put it down when I took that job.

So now, it’s 2016, and it’s time for v3. The basic JTBD remain the same. I still have the tests from v2, so I’m not starting totally from scratch.

I’ve been living with this itch for the greater part of a decade. I have a pretty good idea of what it should look like. It’s time to realize that vision.

Free Agent

June 29th, 2016

I’m no longer with NPR. NPR restructured its Digital Services division, and my position as Senior Director of Product Strategy and Development was eliminated.

So, there you go.

I still believe in the mission of public media. As a listener, I’ll still always drift to the left of the dial. My bedroom’s clock radio remains locked on WBUR, my office radio on Classical Radio Boston. Sonos on the weekend will continue to alternate between XPN’s Exponential Radio and KCRW’s Eclectic 24 — exposing the children to decent music as they’re growing up. Pop Culture Happy Hour makes my Friday runs far more pleasant.

NPR One remains the most innovative product on the market — and the best shower radio ever invented.

I’m glad that public media exists — I’m a sustaining member of WBUR, WGBH and WXPN — and I hope that they’ll continue telling great stories and building great experiences.

Ok, so what’s next?

I’m a little young to retire, so I should probably keep working.

I see three main paths — consulting and building, Startupland or BigCoLand. Each has its charms.

I’ve had good success working as an independent consultant, helping CEOs and Founders focus their product strategies and move in the right direction. I can also give informed, disinterested second opinions, what I refer to as "Sanity Checking as a Service."

The consulting lifestyle has its advantages. I mostly work out of my home office, and I have time to build other things and manage the Butler household more tightly. The cashflow tends to be more erratic, though.

I miss Startupland. I’ve been in and out of startups since 1997, and none of my adventures in BigCoLand have had the same energy and sense of possibility.

I found that I couldn’t effectively work at a startup when the children were small (and when I had an ailing senior in the house). The children are now happy tweens, and I think that I can look seriously at this route again.

I don’t want to dismiss BigCoLand out of hand, though. I like the chance to work on bigger problems, and it’s great to know that (literally) tens of millions of people will benefit from your work.

What now?

Over the summer, I’m probably pick up a little consulting work while figuring out the longer-term solution.

And, I get to write again!

I couldn’t comment publicly on any causes or issues when I was working as a public-facing employee of a news organization. This is entirely appropriate, but I’m happy that I no longer have that constraint.

I hope to be able to get back to writing several thousand words a week. Some of them I’ll publish, some I’ll trash. It’s the discipline that matters. I enjoyed when I used to be a decent writer; I’d like to get back to that.

I’m working on a "consolidated learnings" Tinderbox to pull together (for myself, if no one else) my current best takes and pointers. Depending on how things go, I may release this as "Jason’s Guide to the Universe" later this year. No promises on that, though.

I’m really excited to get to build stuff again

Executives at large organizations don’t get to touch stuff. As is appropriate. Still, I miss the ability to fire up Emacs and make the machine dance to my song.

First things first: this very website. I launched JPButler.com in early 2001, hand-writing all the code for the site. You can still see some of that embarrassing work on my Habitat for Humanity New Zealand and Tanzania sections. After a couple years, I migrated the blog part to Movable Type and then to WordPress. That’s the site you see right now.

And, boy is it creaky.

So, I’m going to rewrite this site. Once I have a modern stack, I’m going to build out some tools for myself to automate bits of my life. I haven’t been able to use my own site as a sandbox; now I will.

I’ll also consolidate some of my other writings around the web — 39 Essays among others — into one master site.

Next: Rebuilding my news-personalization apps. I wrote Serendeputy in 2008. The software still runs and I still use it every day, but it’s really beginning to show its age.

The other band-aid app I wrote was TweetDeputy which reads my Twitter feed and pulls out the links being shared. I actually use TweetDeputy a lot. Even though it doesn’t have the personalization elements of Serendeputy, it has a high enough hit rate that I check in with it several times a day.

Before I was recruited into NPR, I was working on the next generation of Serendeputy. I’m going to go back to that Github repository and see what I can use and what I would need to rewrite. The universe has moved a lot since 2008, and I’d like to be able to have an updated version of the application (even if it’s only for my use.)

I’m also a much better software engineer now than I was then. That should help!

Sharpening the saw

A little unscheduled free time is going to help me sharpen my saw and shake off the rust. I’ll need to get back to a reasonable level of competence on the stuff I’ve used before: Ruby, Rails, JS, Linux, Postgres, Ansible, etc.

I’m really looking forward to playing more with R, Analytics, and proper Machine Learning techniques. Serendeputy (currently) uses approximations of some of these techniques; I might as get really good at using them properly.


One thing I learned at Compass Aging was that "your life is far better in your sixties if you try a little harder in your forties."

I’m getting back to running in Minuteman National Park every midday during the week. I have a 5.5 mile loop that I am trying to master. I hope to be able to consistently nail a 10-minute pace for that loop by the end of the summer.

I’ve also been getting back to my DDP Yoga routine. It’s embarrassing how much more flexible my 10-year-old is that I am. Probably stronger too. I should see to that.

So, that’s the update. I have a little more free time now, so please let me know if you want to catch up. Most people reading this have my cell phone number (Touchdown Jason). My email address is Jason at this domain. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Have a great summer!